Mitt Romney has been attacking Newt Gingrich for alleged ethics violations during his tenure as speaker of the House. But as Byron York writes, the Gingrich ethics scandal was a product of vindictive partisan politics, it was inflamed by a complicit press corps, and it resulted (with little press coverage) in the Clinton-era IRS’s exoneration of Gingrich.

York writes:

“Before the Iowa caucuses, Romney and his supporting super PAC did serious damage to Gingrich with an ad attacking Gingrich’s ethics past. Since then, Romney has made other ads and web videos focusing on the ethics matter, and at the Republican debate in Tampa Monday night, Romney said Gingrich ‘had to resign in disgrace.’

“…The Gingrich case was extraordinarily complex, intensely partisan, and driven in no small way by a personal vendetta on the part of one of Gingrich’s former political opponents [former Congressman Ben Jones (D., Ga.), who played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard]. It received saturation coverage in the press....It ended with a special counsel hired by the House Ethics Committee holding Gingrich to an astonishingly strict standard of behavior, after which Gingrich in essence pled guilty to two minor offenses. Afterwards, the case was referred to the Internal Revenue Service, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter. And then, after it was all over and Gingrich was out of office, the IRS concluded that Gingrich did nothing wrong. After all the struggle, Gingrich was exonerated.”

York writes that the controversy centered on a course called ‘Renewing American Civilization,’ which Gingrich had taught with financing from a tax-exempt organization. York writes, “Gingrich maintained that the course was a legitimate educational enterprise; his critics contended that it had little to do with learning and was in fact a political exercise in which Gingrich abused a tax-exempt foundation to spread his own partisan message.” York continues,

“…With the charges against Gingrich megaphoned in the press, Gingrich and Republicans were under intense pressure to end the ordeal. In January, 1997, Gingrich agreed to make a limited confession of wrongdoing in which he pleaded guilty to the previously unknown offense of failing to seek sufficiently detailed advice from a tax lawyer before proceeding with the course. (Gingrich had in fact sought advice from two such lawyers in relation to the course.) Gingrich also admitted that he had provided ‘inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable’ information to Ethics Committee investigators. That ‘inaccurate’ information was Gingrich’s contention that the course was not political….

“In return for those admissions, the House reprimanded Gingrich and levied an unprecedented $300,000 fine.

“…[T]he IRS [then] began an investigation that would stretch over three years….IRS investigators obtained tapes and transcripts of each session during the two years the course was taught….

“[In 1999, the] IRS concluded the course simply was not political….[T]he IRS wrote, ‘…the content of the “Renewing American Civilization” course was educational...and not biased toward any of those who were supposed to be benefited.’

“The bottom line: Gingrich acted properly and violated no laws….

“Back in January 1997…the Washington Post’s front-page banner headline was ‘Gingrich Actions “Intentional” or “Reckless”; Counsel Concludes That Speaker’s Course Funding Was “Clear Violation” of Tax Laws.’ That same day, the New York Times ran eleven stories on the Gingrich matter, four of them on the front page (one inside story was headlined, ‘Report Describes How Gingrich Used Taxpayers’ Money for Partisan Politics’). On television, Dan Rather began the CBS Evening News by telling viewers that ‘only now is the evidence of Newt Gingrich’s ethics violations and tax problems being disclosed in detail.’

“The story was much different when Gingrich was exonerated. The Washington Post ran a brief story on page five. The Times ran an equally brief story on page 23. And the evening newscasts of CBS, NBC, and ABC — which together had devoted hours of coverage to the question of Gingrich’s ethics — did not report the story at all….”

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